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No Choice: It takes a world to end the use of child soldiers

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World Vision
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Executive Summary

Founded by Bob Pierce in 1950, World Vision was then and continues to be a global force for good. A community of millions, driven by our desire to protect, empower and transform the lives of vulnerable girls and boys in the most fragile places all over the world. According to the United Nations (UN), 357 million children live in areas affected by armed conflict, and that number has risen dramatically over the past ten years. Children are disproportionately affected by war – including facing increased risk of all forms of violence and exploitation – yet are the least responsible. The recruitment and use of children are grave violations of children’s rights, with lifelong effects on children and their communities. And yet tens of thousands of children are used by both armed forces and armed groups in at least 20 countries around the world.

This report draws on World Vision’s experience working on the issues related to children and armed conflict as well as on the findings of a multi-country study conducted for World Vision by Child Frontiers. The study included primary qualitative research in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Colombia, as well as desk research on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Iraq and South Sudan. The primary research relied on focus groups of affected community members, key informant interviews, and testimonies from people who were associated with armed forces or armed groups as children.

For the past 20 years, a great deal of effort at the international level has focused on changing policies and practices in armed forces and armed groups on the recruitment of children. Less attention has been paid on the national and global stage to reducing children’s vulnerability to recruitment. The majority of children involved with armed forces and armed groups are not abducted or forced to join at gunpoint. Most become associated with armed actors due to various forms of desperation – they have no other options or feel that this is the best of their bad options. Although they may have some agency in the decision, it is by its nature coercive and can be seen along a ‘continuum of coercion’1 with abduction on one end, and volunteerism on the other.
While abduction and recruitment by force is a reality in many places around the world, World Vision believes that the rest of the continuum has received much less attention and it is therefore the focus of this report. While the continuum is helpful for understanding where a push factor may sit, in reality the perception of how coercive the factor may be is extremely subjective and varies across contexts and by audience.

This report is expected to contribute to the dialogue on protecting children from the effects of armed conflict by elevating their voices and providing evidence on factors having an impact on their resilience. The weight of these factors differs by context and by individual children but include absence of physical safety and presence of violence due to conflict, lack of opportunities, poverty, lack of access to basic necessities such as food, ongoing insecurity and displacement, community and family expectations, peer pressure, a need for belonging, family breakdown and a desire for revenge. In many cases it is not one factor making a child join but rather a convergence of vulnerabilities that ultimately tip the balance.

While boys seem to join armed forces/groups more than girls in all contexts explored for this research, many girls are nonetheless involved, and in numbers that may be higher than previously assumed, depending on the location. Girls’ needs, experiences and motivations are often different from boys’, as are the risks. That girls are mostly seen as ‘wives’ or ‘girlfriends’ to fighters suggests a significant gendered difference in how they come to be involved in an armed group.

The drivers of recruitment must be addressed systemically in order to prevent it happening and to ensure that children who have been demobilised do not reenter armed forces or armed groups. This prevention work must happen at both the macro level (reducing insecurity, conflict resolution, addressing wider inequality issues, strengthening national protection systems, and so on) and the micro level (strengthening community-based child protection, increase availability of child protection and gender-based violence response services, access to education, intergenerational dialogue, social norm change, parenting skills, psychosocial support, livelihoods, and so forth).

Children themselves called for better opportunities and protection, including quality education, sports and other activities, and a safe environment. We must involve them in their own protection.

This report makes recommendations for governments, the international community (including the United Nations and donors) and organisations working on the ground in order to prioritise the protection of children in humanitarian responses and prevent children’s engagement with armed forces and armed groups. No armed actor should recruit children, and no boy or girl under the age of 18 should see joining an armed force or armed group as his or her only or best option. It is therefore imperative to work together to change practices in armed forces and armed groups, prioritise the rights and protection of children and reduce the factors making children vulnerable to recruitment by committing to action on the following:

● All armed forces and armed groups must prohibit the recruitment of children under the age of 18 in policy and practice. This includes appropriate national legislation and its enforcement.

● Effectively and sufficiently resource child protection, education and social protection services in national budgets and prioritise the protection of children from grave violations in national policy.

● Recognise prevention and response to grave violations against children as a life-saving intervention and dramatically increase funding for child protection in conflict settings, including long-term funding for both prevention of and response to violence against children.

● All donors and humanitarian actors should mainstream a systems approach to child protection across funding mechanisms and programmes with the aim of protecting children from the six grave violations identified by the United Nations as well as other violations of their rights.

● Prioritise the participation and empowerment of children and young people in peacebuilding and community life, in programme design and evaluation and in global discussions on issues affecting them.